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A day in the life of a zookeeper

Credit: Auckland Zoo

A day in the life of a zookeeper

We chat with Auckland Zoo's primate team leader Amy Robbins to learn about the exciting life as a zookeeper. 

A day in the life of a zookeeper

When you were younger, did you always want to work with animals?

Yes. My whole life I’ve been passionate about animals and the environment. My dad tells me I wanted to be a zookeeper since I was 3 years old.

What does a typical day look like to you? 

Absolutely no such thing as a typical day, other than I cram as much as is humanly possible into my time here because there is so much to do.

7:15 am: I get to work. I usually check on the orangutans via CCTV so I don’t wake them up (orangutans don’t like early mornings!) then I’ll start my emails and make a list for the day.

8 am: My team arrive and we have a morning meeting. Then I usually have more meetings, workshops, look after the animals, training sessions with the orangutans, check on any animals that may be unwell, plan any upcoming transfers or medical procedures with the relevant people.

I might also give public talks, do media, assist my team where help is needed, try and get through more emails and documents, update rosters and feed animals.

5 pm: I leave work. Every day is completely jam-packed, and can be exhausting – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Credit: Auckland Zoo

What’s a part of the job that might surprise people?

There’s so much science involved in this job. It’s not all picking up poo or cuddling animals which are the most common misconceptions about zookeeping.

We are all educated, intelligent people that use science on a daily basis to provide our animals with the very best care.

An example is nutrition. We use computer programmes and are constantly researching the latest science to ensure we formulate the very best and most nutritional diets for our animals.

Nutrition is one of the most important aspects in animal husbandry and if we get that right then we take care of so much of the rest of their welfare.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

It’s always devastating to lose an animal, particularly one we have special relationships with or those that we fight so hard to save.

A hard part of this job can be compassion fatigue. We have such strong emotional connections to the animals in our care and we spend a huge amount of time with them – more than with our own families.

Caring for primates in particular can take an emotional and psychological toll at times as there is so much involved in ensuring their very best care.

They are complex, intelligent, emotional beings that deserve as much care and love as we give our own children.

On the flipside, this also makes it one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Burnout is easy in this job, but we are all aware of it and make sure self-care is a priority.

What’s the most exciting thing to happen to you at work?

Recently it has been the orangutans coming home from Christchurch. My team and I worked with them for 26 months at Orana Wildlife Park.

While it was tough on us and our families to be away for long periods, it was so worth it to ensure we provided the best care possible for the orangutans while their new habitat was being built.

Credit: Auckland Zoo

Bringing them home to Auckland was one of my career highlights and biggest achievements to date as it was a mammoth task that took over a year of planning and perfecting.

Being involved in the design of the new habitat has also been a highlight and something I’m very proud of.

Seeing mine and my team’s ideas coming to fruition and having the orangutans and siamangs using their habitat how we envisioned, is very satisfying.

What do you find most fulfilling about your job?

Happy, healthy animals that are living meaningful lives in positive welfare.

A happy, cohesive, and amazing team who care deeply about the animals in their care and also one another.

Making a difference in conservation, small ripples but part of a big pond.

Who are some of your heroes and what do you admire about them? 

Jane Goodall was my first hero as well as David Attenborough, who is also one of my 10-year-old son’s heroes. My son watched so much of him as a toddler that he developed a David Attenborough accent!

Currently my heroes are other every day women forging a path in conservation and making a difference – I’m lucky to know so many passionate, intelligent, and dedicated women in conservation.

What’s unique about the new primate habitat?

This is the first of its kind in this region and in my opinion the best orangutan and siamang habitat in a zoo anywhere in the world.

The unique thing about our habitat for me, is two-fold; the animals have a huge range of choice and flexibility in how they utilise their environment.

They get a unique perspective having the ability to leave their habitats and get onto an extensive arboreal pathway around some of the zoo.

Credit: Auckland Zoo

The other unique thing is how much of the design was based around how orangutans and siamang are physiologically adapted to an arboreal environment and the knowledge and experience we have working with these species both in the zoo and in the wild contributed hugely to the design.

We want to provide the very best there is for these animals and we have done that.

Nothing about it was easy or simple; orangutans are one of the most difficult and complex species to design an environment for, but we nailed it!

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